To fully understand the sense of “The Mill on the Floss” we should know a bit more about its author. George Eliot is a pseudonym of a woman named Mary Anne Evans and her book is a rare kind of autobiography. Though the events of life of the main character don’t match the real life of Mary Anne Evans, they still reflect the life of the author in emotional and metaphorical sense.
The novel opens with the introduction of the unnamed narrator who tells the readers their dream about Dorlcote Mill, the place they used to know many years ago. Dorlcote’s story starts when Mr. Tulliver, the farmer and the owner of the mill, makes a decision to give his son Tom a better future, so he sends Tom away to study at school. Tom is very upset to leave the place he loves and his family. He especially misses his pet rabbits that have to stay at home. When Tom comes back for summer holidays, he realizes that his younger sister, the girl named Maggie, who he asked to care about them, forgot to feed the rabbits and they all starved to death. Tom is furious at Maggie and decides to punish her, refusing to speak to her and show any sympathy at all. Maggie is a very emotional girl, who loves her brother above all. She is already very sorry about the rabbits and such a manipulative behaviour of her brother makes her suffer very much. Tom enjoys his power, continuing to show his disappointment in her even after he is ready to forgive her, but finally lets Maggie apologize.
Tom returns to study. He studies with the private teacher now, Mr. Stelling. Tom detests these lessons, because being the only pupil in the class means that all the teacher’s attention is drawn to you. This makes cheating harder. But a relief comes after the winter holiday - another boy named Philip Wakem also starts learning from Mr. Stelling. The rivalry between the parents of Tom and Philip - Mr. Tulliver and the lawyer named Mr. Wakem, reflects the relationship between the kids. Another reason for Tom to mock Philip is Philip’s physical disability. The lawyer’s son is a sensitive boy who is eager to study but is completely unprepared to oppose the son of a miller. However, when Tom’s sister Maggie comes to visit Tom, both boys make a fragile truce - Tom doesn’t want his father to learn about his school life through his sister and Philip is just mesmerized by Maggie’s smart and tender nature.
Two years pass, and it is time for Maggie to go study too. She studies together with her first cousin Lucy. But Maggie can’t finish even the first year of study. Her education is terminated when Mr. Tulliver loses the court case against Mr. Pivart, another farmer, who hired Mr. Wakem to represent him. Mr. Wakem makes the loss devastating, putting Mr. Tulliver into horrible debts. Now the farmer has to sell his mill just to pay a part of them. After sending for Maggie Mr. Tulliver learns that Mr. Wakem is now has the mortgage on the farm as a payment for his service. This news is so devastating that Mr. Tulliver loses conscience on the spot. Maggie, learning that the situation at home is horrible, leaves to Mr. Stelling’s school to see Tom and tell him the news, asking to come with her too.
When the children come home they see that there is no home for them anymore. The bailiff sold all the furniture up to the kitchen stuff to cover at least some part of the debts. Mrs. Tulliver decides to step in and try to fix things. She has three sisters she pleads for help - but all the three women, Mrs. Pullet, Mrs. Deane and Mrs. Glegg are just using this situation to show off their self-righteousness and the success of their husbands. Yet, they still want to display their high morals and they come to the auction organized by the bailiff to buy some stuff they wanted for a long time - pretending that they are helping the Tullivers in such a way, by buying unnecessary things. Seeing that the things go from bad to worse, Tom decides that he is adult enough to do something and goes for advice for his uncle Deane. Tom suggests that he can start a small business on his own to earn money and to support the family. Mr. Deane isn’t so enthusiastic about it: he knows that the private business is a complicated thing and not everyone who starts can succeed. But finally, they work out a plan and Tom makes acquaintance with Mr. Deane’s employer, Mr. Guest. Tom starts to work at Guest & Co. to get some experience and learns bookkeeping there.
In the meantime, Mrs. Tulliver still doesn’t give up. She decides to visit Mr. Wakem, who still wants the mill for himself, and persuade him that the mill is in horrible state and is an extremely bad investment. But when she depicts the imaginary state of the mill, Mr. Wakem just becomes adamant in his decision to buy the mill on the auction. So, the nightmare of Mr. Tulliver is complete when the lawyer buys the mills and offers him the position of a hired manager - mocking Mr. Tulliver by working on the same mill that is not his own anymore. But Mr. Tulliver has already managed to get himself together and get along with the current state of affairs, so he agrees. He still is disgusted by Mr. Wakem and the very idea of working as his employee, but he believes that Mrs. Tulliver has talked out this position for him and, out of gratitude to her, he agrees. Also, the Tullivers are too used to their place of living and their work, so moving out would be a huge stress for them. Thus, Mr. Tulliver agrees, but sets a new goal in life for himself.
Now Mr. Tulliver works as hard as possible to repay his incredibly huge debts and restore his status. All his family commits to help him in it. Mrs. Tulliver does anything she can to reduce the money she spends for the household and Tom gives all his earnings to his father, leaving for himself only the small amount for living. Maggie doesn’t participate though. She starts to communicate with Bob Jakin, who presents her some books. The one she likes the most is a spiritual treatise that says that the path to peace with oneself is self-renunciation. Maggie believes in it wholeheartedly, but is so overly enthusiastic about renunciation that she distorts the very idea, becoming zealous and self-obsessed with it, trying to reach happiness. Maggie isn’t the only one Bob Jakin tries to help. When Tom turns nineteen, he offers him an opportunity to make a big and profitable investment. After a heavy thinking Tom decides that the risk is worth it. He borrows some money from Mr. and Mrs. Glegg, invests them and wins, almost immediately multiplying the sum several times.
While the family is struggling, Maggie is still searching for happiness. Once she meets Philip Wakem again (he was seeking her for all that time) and Philip confesses his deep and friendly feelings to her, asking Maggie to meet with him secretly. Maggie, who is still attracted to his intelligence and reserved nature, reluctantly agrees and they go out together for almost a year. Finally, the mutual affection turns into love and they admit it. But Maggie, telling Philip that she loves him more than anyone in her life, sadly concludes that they can’t marry because of the rivalry of their families and the deep disapproval of her father and brother. She appears to be right about it. Tom, suspicious about the long walks of his sister, starts to follow her and eventually spots her with Philip. Later he confronts Maggie and manipulates her into ending their relationship, saying that if Maggie ever talks to Philip without Tom’s permission, he will tell Mr. Tulliver about her love in such a way that her father will lose his sanity again, so Maggie will be the destroyer of the whole family. Maggie is pressed to accept and the next time she appoints the meeting with Philip, Tom comes with her, cruelly mocking his former classmate and forcing Maggie to tell herself that their relationship is ended now.
Finally, Tom’s investments are enough to buy the mill back and pay all the debts. Mr. Tulliver rejoices and the first thing he decides to do is to go to Mr. Wakem and say that he isn’t working for him anymore. But when the two meet, Mr. Tulliver’s hair-trigger temper steps in and the simple announcement turns into an insult and then to a fight. Mr. Tulliver takes his horsewhip and attacks the lawyer with it, but he is an old man already and this attempt causes a stroke that gets Mr. Tulliver bedridden. He dies shortly thereafter, and on his deathbed he makes Tom promise to get the mill back and never forgive the Wakems.
Two years pass. Maggie now can continue her education and she returns to St. Ogg’s. She now works at school and lives with her best friend and cousin Lucy Deane. Eventually Maggie discovers that Lucy is a good friend of Philip Wakem and she tearfully tells her the story of their star-crossed love and Tom’s role in ending their relationship. Overwhelmed with anger and pity, Lucy starts to work on a plan to get the couple back together. In the meanwhile, Maggie meets Stephen Guest, who is courting Maggie for a long time, and this meeting becomes their doom. Maggie and Stephen immediately fall for each other, no matter how they both try to ignore and repress their feelings. Maggie, understanding that things go horribly, horribly wrong, decides to go away to visit her aunt Moss just to give them both the time to calm down and think twice. But Stephen isn’t ready to calm down. He follows Maggie there, saying that he loves her and wants to be with her forever. It is an unbearable temptation for the girl, but she finds the willpower to refuse, saying that they can’t be happy, knowing that they are leaving two broken hearts - Lucy’s and Philip’s - behind.
Finally, Maggie returns to Lucy, still oblivious to her feelings to Stephen. Lucy secretly arranges a boat ride for both Maggie and Philip. But, unlike Lucy, Philip already understands that Maggie’s heart belongs to another man. He is depressed, but still wants his beloved to be happy, so he changes places with Stephen, asking him to have a boat ride with Maggie instead. Stephen, being alone with Maggie, pleads her to elope with him and the girl agrees, finally succumbing to her feeling. They leave that very day, buying a ticket to the steamboat to York. But the next morning Maggie realizes what she has done, and the guilt starts to torment her even more. She desperately tells Stephen that she can’t step over Philip and Lucy and marry him and runs back to St. Ogg’s.
It has been five days of Maggie’s absence, so when she returns, everyone thinks that her behaviour was scandalous and impossible for the young girl. Even her brother Tom tells her to get away from his house. The only person who still supports her is her mother, Mrs. Tulliver, who helps her find a place in the home of Bob Jakin, her childhood friend. Stephen writes a letter to his father, blaming himself for everything and declaring Maggie innocent, but the gossips are already spread and her reputation is inevitably damaged. Dr. Kenn, the local priest, has mercy on her and offers Maggie a job of a governess in his house, but the social pressure is so intense that the reputation of the priest himself becomes soiled - he is rumored to sleep with her, because for the people it is the only job Maggie can do. With a heavy heart Dr. Kenn asks Maggie to move to somewhere else to save them both.
Lucy has a hard time recovering from the shock of Shephen’s betrayal. But still she loves Maggie and one night she comes to her and the cousins reconcile. Lucy tells her that she is sick because of the broken heart, but when she gets well she will be glad to visit Maggie often. Lucy also gives two letters to Maggie. One is from Philip, who wishes her happiness and absolves Maggie of any promises she made, asking not to feel guilty anymore. Another is from Stephen, who is still hopelessly in love and asks her to marry him again. But seeing Lucy and all the troubles that were caused by their love, Maggie writes back to him, firmly refusing and ending their relationship forever.
Suddenly the huge flood starts. Maggie wakes up Bob and his family and all the house inhabitants board a boat to go to Dorlcote Mill to save the rest of the family. Mrs. Tulliver, luckily, is somewhere out of town, safe, but Tom still needs to be rescued. He boards the boat and sees that his rescuer is Maggie, his sister who he did so much harm and disowned. They look at each other and Tom silently asks forgiveness - but before any words are spoken, a huge chunk of debris floats nearby, drowning both of them. Maggie and Tom are the only two victims of the flood and the survivors bury them in the graves next to one another.